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Incumbents face off with new contenders in races for supervisor, clerk, treasurer and trustee

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published July 20, 2016

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP — Every candidate running for a position in Bloomfield Township this primary election is a Republican.

But really, candidates can be grouped in two different, very-divided sides: the side that says Township Hall is rife with corruption, overspending and nepotism — and the the side that says that’s all a bunch of baloney.

Voters will decide Aug. 2 who should be named the township’s supervisor, treasurer and clerk, as well as four trustee seats. Incumbents Supervisor Leo Savoie, Treasurer Dan Devine, Clerk Jan Roncelli, and Commissioners Corinne Khederian, Neal Barnett and David Buckley are all vying to keep their seats.

Newcomer Dave Thomas seeks to take the top position away from Savoie, while Roncelli is being challenged by first-time candidate Susie Kern. Geoff Hockman, Michael Schostak, Dani Walsh, Jeffrey Axt and Kirk Brannock are fresh faces looking for seats on the board.

Current Trustee Brian Kepes is forgoing his bid for re-election to the board in hopes of taking the treasurer title from Devine.

On June 28, the candidates met at Bloomfield Township Hall for a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters — Oakland Area. They discussed their hopes for the township if elected and addressed the elephant in the room: the discord that has plagued the administration for months, even years.

The weigh-ins
Though Savoie and Devine aren’t running against each other, many would argue their bad blood is the root of the contentious election.

Whatever the reason for their tensions, the hard hits started in the fall of 2014 when Devine filed a campaign finance complaint against Savoie. The state later dismissed the claim.

The following spring, Savoie made the suggestion to reduce the treasurer’s position to part time, claiming he wasn’t living up to full-time responsibilities.

The board didn’t reduce Devine’s position. A few months later, the treasurer filed a report with police saying that Savoie had kidnapped his daughter. Police found Devine’s daughter, a school teacher, at her place of employment, but Devine asked to file the kidnapping report anyway.

The allegations didn’t sit well with the rest of the board, which officially censured the treasurer last July. That was followed up a couple of months later with a whistleblower lawsuit from Devine against Savoie and the township, which was also later dismissed.

Since then, the tension is palpable at township board meetings, where Devine has repeatedly called for an independent audit of Water and Sewer Department finances to reveal alleged overcharging, and each time has been dismissed by the rest of the board, which said the entire township’s finances are independently audited annually.

The feud has escalated so much that in late June, a letter was released to Bloomfield Township voters signed by several officials, including Police Chief Geof Gaudard, Fire Chief Dave Piché, Finance Director Jason Theis and seven others denouncing Devine’s campaign and his actions thus far as treasurer.

Devine responded by telling the Eagle that it’s unfair for voters to consider a message penned by officials technically under his opponent’s employ.

The matchups
Savoie v. Thomas

Savoie was first appointed in 2011, then elected in 2012. Thomas, a Ford Motor Co. executive, hasn’t held public office before, but said he felt compelled to run to bring transparency and respect back to the board.

The backdoor deals and overspending Thomas has referenced throughout the campaign just aren’t true, Savoie told the crowd at the forum.

“This is one of those things that if people say it enough times, (the public) will believe it,” Savoie said.

Thomas said televising all township board meetings, not just Board of Trustees meetings, would be first on his agenda if elected supervisor. He also would like to eliminate the furlough day at Township Hall and make administrative services available five days a week, among other things.

“I promise that I will govern and not rule over the community. This is not anyone’s personal fiefdom; it’s our community,” Thomas said. “I will also make professional bidding on all community services policy. I will institute policies for conflicts of interest, put the Finance Department back under the clerk, and reinstate checks and balances for spending. I will reinstate a five-day work week for the township, and this will be my only job.”

Savoie responded by saying most of those things are in place already, with the exception of taping all meetings and the supervisor’s office being his only source of income. He explained that he runs an appraisal business in his private time, which is allowed by law.

“We do competitive bidding on professional services and comparative shopping. I know our legal fees are 50 to 60 percent less than what they pay in the private sector. I also know our engineering rates are the lowest in the industry,” Savoie said.

Roncelli v. Kern
The clerk portion of the forum sounded nearly identical to the supervisor’s portion. Challenger Kern, who is running for public office for the first time, said she wants to eliminate conflicts of interest in the Clerk’s Office. Roncelli, the 12-year incumbent, said there just aren’t any conflicts.

And when it comes to a lack of conflicts, Roncelli said that extends to her job outside government.

“I make no bones about it: I am the proud owner of a manufacturing company in Troy, and we are two generations of a woman-owned business. When I took this job on part time as clerk, my company has never interfered with this job. I delegated responsibilities to my husband and my staff, and what I do in my private time to work in the nights or weekends is my time and it has never interfered. And I would not give up that family tradition at all,” Roncelli said.

“I believe this position is for service of our residents. And I believe in a five-day service for our residents’ convenience. I do not have a conflict of interest with this position — this would be my full-time position. I would make it a full-time position as well by doing all the responsibilities of the clerk and re-establishing checks and balances between the treasurer and supervisor by reinstating the accounting function and also overseeing the Finance Department, which is currently reporting to the supervisor,” said Kern, who said that while she’s not experienced when it comes to running elections, she would rely on many of the procedures already in place. She added that she would make sure there are no conflicts of interest.

Roncelli said that even though the finance director works with the supervisor, as with all records, she oversees incoming and outgoing vouchers.

She added that there are seven layers of checks and balances between departments for every financial transaction in the township.

Those checks and balances extend to elections, Roncelli said, saying that Bloomfield Township is a “model community” for ensuring the integrity of elections with highly trained precinct workers and strict procedures.

Devine v. Kepes
The incumbent Devine and challenger Kepes have already worked together for some time, since Kepes was first appointed as trustee in 2009. Kepes is currently on the board that moved to censure Devine last summer.

So it’s no surprise that the two had a hard time pulling punches during their portion of the forum.

“While sometimes we do not always agree, we work best when we treat each other with respect and put aside our personal agendas and put the interest of the community first,” Kepes said. “Together we can put Bloomfield Township back on a path of strength and stability. We can put the embarrassing episodes of the past behind us and have a local government we can be proud of.”

“I’m very disappointed with the way it’s been the past couple of years, where the personality conflicts have been contrived as a smokescreen to hide the true issues,” Devine fired back.

Those issues? To start, Devine honed in on his request for an independent audit of water and sewer funds. Kepes reiterated that each year, the entire township is audited by an independent accounting firm, but Devine said he just doesn’t believe that audit is truly free of conflicts.

Kepes suggested that if elected, he’d like to build an audit committee in the township so residents feel they have a hand in ensuring the integrity of financial checks.

Devine stressed that his position as treasurer is his only job. Kepes is the president and founder of SRK Realty & Management.

“I believe you can only serve one master, not two, three or four,” Devine said.

He added that, as treasurer for 17 years, he should be credited with building and keeping the township’s AAA bond rating — an achievement Kepes said should be credited to the entire Board of Trustees.

The main event
The Board of Trustees has four open seats, with three incumbents — Khederian, Barnett and Buckley —  hoping to stay on.

Looking to step in instead are Hockman, Schostak, Walsh, Axt and Brannock.

Walsh, during her closing remarks at the forum, made clear where alliances lie when she encouraged residents to vote for “Team Trustee: Walsh, Brannock, Buckley and Axt.”

The business manager, like Kern and Thomas, made a five-day week for township services a priority if elected. She also stressed the need for expanded competitive bidding and a water and sewer audit.

She was echoed by Axt, an entrepreneur and founder of an environmental defense nonprofit, who said the current board is encouraging overdevelopment while hindering transparency.

“One incumbent candidate has coined the phrase, ‘Keep the good going,’” said Axt, referencing Savoie’s campaign slogan. “I disagree, and encourage you to get the better started.”

Newcomers Brannock and Hockman were absent from the forum. None of the challengers have held elected office.

Incumbents Khederian and Barnett defended themselves against conflict of interest allegations, and said that if elected they’d continue to move the township forward with the same high level of service and financial stability that residents have enjoyed for some time.

“We must continue this level of services in the township, and I have worked hard to do so,” said Khederian, saying there have been efforts to be transparent in finance and maintain the municipality’s AAA bond rating. “A bond rating, which is a board job, is not just an accomplishment of the treasurer.”

“Our AAA bond rating did not happen by accident. We all had a part in that. We have competitive bidding. Our water rates are competitive with the surrounding communities, and we are fiscally found,” said Barnett.

Buckley, also an incumbent, defended his work on the board while decidedly not standing with his fellow current trustees.

“I care about Bloomfield Township deeply,” Buckley said. “It’s the people that make up this community, not the restaurants, strip centers and offices. These are wonderful to have, and I have used my best judgment hundreds of times serving on the zoning board and from the trustee platform to ensure continuity between our residents making up 95 percent of this community and our businesses.”

After the bell rings
With only Republicans running in the primary, there’s a strong chance that whoever comes out on top will take office in November without having to compete again in the general election.

To learn more about those running for seats, head to our Election Guide section to review all of the candidates’ profiles.

Then, check back with www.cand on election night for results as soon as polls close.